The Fixer

Whatever it is, if it breaks, he’ll make it work

by Will Lindner

marcotte0617“Appliance repair” far from describes the skills of Gary Marcotte, the owner of Gary Marcotte’s Appliance Showroom in Shelburne, whose dedicated clients depend on him.

The owner of Gary Marcotte’s Appliance Showroom in Shelburne does a great impersonation of someone who’s not organized.

He works out of his home, and it shows. The two-story house, which he shares with his partner, Annette LaBombard, rises from a landscape populated by refrigerators, washers, dryers, lawn mowers, and a riot of parts probably unidentifiable to anyone not named Gary Marcotte. The garage holds more of this paraphernalia, and behind it Marcotte has added an extension with opaque plastic walls and ceiling that concentrate sunlight in winter and make it a cozy workspace. His service delivery truck beside the front porch, “an essential piece of the business,” he says, offers additional work and storage space.

Marcotte knows what this looks like. Laughing, he says “You could look at me and call me a hoarder.”

A more accurate description is that he is a man intensely engaged with his business, and cagey about making it work for him. He has found, for example, that it’s frequently more efficient for him, and entirely satisfactory for his customers, to replace a troublesome appliance with one he has already fixed, rather than driving back and forth to collect a machine, dissect it in his shop, then haul it back again. His customers have utmost confidence that the replacement will operate as well as or better than the one they’re giving up (which Marcotte will tote back to his home and repair when he finds an opportunity).

“Gary has so many friends in this area, and he can fix anything,” says John DuBrul, whose family founded and has owned The Automaster in Shelburne since 1968. “I have his personal cell phone number and I can call him 24/7. We use him here at the dealership, and at my home. And at multiple friends’ homes, too.”

Because it turns out that, just as his workspace gives the appearance of someone who’s less than organized, his business name is similarly misleading. Marcotte will tackle anything, and since he grew up as part of a similarly diverse family business founded by his parents, Norman and Rita Marcotte, in 1951 (Gary was born in 1958), chances are he’s tackled it before.

Appliances aren’t even the first thing that come to mind for Zacharie and Cynthia Clements, who now live in Shelburne but have also hired Marcotte for projects in their homes in Charlotte, South Burlington, and Burlington for some 20 years.

“The man is the most knowledgeable plumber,” says Zacharie, with Cynthia agreeing enthusiastically. “But when I say plumber, that’s not fair. He’s also a mechanic; he’s fixed our washing machines, our dryer, our dishwasher, our microwave; he fixed the ice maker in our refrigerator, and just recently he fixed our shower, and it was not a run-of-the-mill problem. The solution he came up with was very clever.”

“Another thing about Gary,” adds DuBrul. “He’s always looking for a nice, inexpensive repair first. And he can be a source for used parts. I’ve given him stuff he’s [passed on to] other people who maybe can’t afford it themselves. If Gary has a fault it’s that he doesn’t know how to say no.”

One of the best Gary Marcotte stories comes from LaBombard, who owns and operates a salon. She was a customer first, buying a washing machine through him, and subsequently hiring him over the phone for repairs on her refrigerator and stove.

“But I never met the man!” she says. She would leave a check with her mother, who came by daily to stay with LaBombard’s children. Then came a problem with her hot water tank.

“He went way beyond what anyone would expect,” she explains. “Not only did he fix the water heater, he replaced the piping system because it was all corroded from hard water. And to do all that he was going up and down from the cellar and the stairs were in bad shape, so he fixed the cellar stairs.

“I felt guilty!” LaBombard exclaims. “So I took him out to dinner. It was the first time we actually met. We’ve been together now for three years.”

Marcotte’s enterprise — however one characterizes it (appliances, plumbing, electrical, carpentry) — is not so much a business as a way of life. He grew up in a Shelburne that he recalls nostalgically as a close-knit community, and feels that way to this day.

“Shelburne people stick together,” he says, which has a lot to do with his virtually lifelong commitment to the volunteer fire department (he has served as both secretary and captain) and his membership since 1996 in the Charlotte-Shelburne-Hinesburg Rotary Club.

Most important, and most formative, was the family business, which is known as Marcotte Appliance and continues, under the direction, still, of Norman Marcotte and Gary’s older brother, Roger. (Gary separated from that business in 2003.) But in the early days, in Gary’s telling, at least half its business was in farm equipment.

“I’m talking about manure spreaders, forage boxes, silo unloaders, milking parlors, feeders, conveyors, battery-powered feed carts, and much more,” he says. There was carpentry, too — building barns and other structures. Marcotte remembers working alongside his brother “from the age of knowing things, 4 or 5 years old.

“Business was booming in the ’60s and ’70s,” he adds, “and the warehouse was full to the ceiling, which made it a great place to play. My father’s employees, some of them were related to us, were very skilled, and taught me early on what hard work was all about.”

Marcotte graduated from Champlain Valley Union High School in 1976, took a year off from his education, then attended The University of Vermont for a year, planning to study engineering. But the lure of hands-on work triumphed, and he settled back into the family enterprise. He got married in 1980, a marriage that produced a son, Jim, now 32 and an architect in Burlington, and daughters Kathy, a nurse in Buffalo, and Erin, who lives next door with her three children and her mother.

Changes in the appliance industry, the expansion of the natural gas infrastructure in Chittenden and Franklin counties (where a pipeline system was inaugurated in 1965), and certainly an innate independent streak, were reasons Marcotte gives for venturing out on his own in 2003.

“I stepped away to pursue a very needed recycling business for appliances,” he recounts. “With all the box stores selling tons of appliances, I found myself processing hundreds of used appliances a week, with a number of employees and a retail showroom of quality reconditioned appliances.”

The “big-box era,” he contends, has fostered a throw-away culture in which people have little patience for the inconveniences of exploring repair options and going without a functioning dryer or dishwasher until someone shows up. So they frequently replace the appliance with a new one, and as a result, Marcotte says, the world is swimming in rejected but usable equipment.

Marcotte also wanted to work more with gas- and natural propane gas–fueled equipment, believing this was where the future lay, and became certified for both. Conversions of natural gas units to operate on propane, for customers not connected to the pipelines, were a big part of his work.

When his business was 5 years old, the economic collapse of 2008 forced him to scale back, eliminating the showroom and, for the most part, any employees. He now gives a lot of thought to the future of the appliance industry: the machines that will be built and the technicians who will service them.

He contends that the national home-supply retail chains have become prominent in the appliance marketplace, but they employ few people qualified to maintain or repair what they sell, so they often turn to Marcotte and others for that work. But their leverage in the market, he says, enables them to underpay for service calls that can require long drives and return trips to a customer’s home.

“I feel the time has come to create a new organization of in-home customer-service specialists,” he says. Retail has largely consolidated in Vermont and across the country, as evidenced by the prominence of national brands in every community. Marcotte thinks it’s time that service providers did the same.

Then there’s the matter of the machines they’ll be working on.

“I believe we will not have monster refrigerator/freezers, clothes washers that use thousands of gallons of water, soaps that destroy our environment and the appliances,” he says. “So who will be creating these new products, and how soon will we be seeing waterless cleaning appliances? And will we be able to use all our recycled materials to create long-lasting, energy-efficient products?

“I don’t know,” he confesses. “But until then, if it breaks, you need someone you can call that knows what to do to keep you running.”

For DuBrul, and Clements, and a woman who left a panicked voice message on his cell phone one recent night when her toilet was overflowing, that someone is Gary Marcotte. These responsibilities mean he rarely gets any time off.

“But I’m not burned out,” he says cheerfully, “because I do a thousand different things.” •